Here it is, my lightly anticipated top ten list of my favorite albums from 2013. The usual disclaimer: these are the albums that I enjoyed the most this year, without consideration to artistic merit (sorry, Kanye!) or trying to look cool ten years from now. This is just what I liked and listened to, released in the year 2013.
Elvis Costello is someone I know I should like more than I do. It’s not that I dislike him; I’ll listen to “Radio, Radio” or his version of “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding” any time. But beyond his greatest hits, he’s not someone whose catalog I’ve really dug into. On the surface, he’s someone who I like the idea of (being smart, knowledgeable, always game for an oddball collab), more than I actually do. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but there it is. I’m pretty familiar with The Roots; I usually buy (and listen) to their albums, I read Questlove’s book. I don’t listen to them all the time, but I do listen to them. So when I heard they were doing an album together, an eyebrow raised. Costello has a history of interesting collaboration albums, and the Roots are the greatest band in late-night television.
The resulting album, “Wise Up Ghost,” is pretty good. That’s not right. I keep wanting to say it’s pretty good, and then I keep putting it on, and really enjoying it. I don’t know why I keep underrating Elvis Costello, and this album, but it’s something approaching a nervous tic, and I should probably seek some help regarding this problem. The first step, of course, is to listen to “Wise Up Ghost” again, and hopefully repeated applications will resolve the issue at hand. I mean, this is a really, really good album. The beefier, more soulful low-end really works with Costello’s delivery. It seems weird to bill this as “The Roots,” considering their lead vocalist isn’t on this album, but I guess it’s no weirder than Neil Young borrowing a Vedder-less Pearl Jam for an album in the ‘90s, and I’d strongly prefer not to see anyone shoehorning rap verses into this album. What’s here is just right, and I wouldn’t mind seeing another album down the line from this lineup.
Looking over my list, fully half of it is made of albums that make sense most as an album. By that, I mean there’s a consistent mood and tone that plays out over the course of the entire work, versus something that’s got a bunch of huge singles, or is a collection of disjointed, yet excellent work. That doesn’t even include a couple of albums that were near-misses for me (like the Atoms For Peace album, for instance). Most of these albums are low-key (but not in that over-earnest, be-vested way, like the Mumfords or whomever), but there remains a tension to these albums that isn’t necessarily entirely resolved by the end of the work. This album is a very good example of that.
I’m not saying that “Push the Sky Away” doesn’t have it’s highlights, they frequently come from lyrical turns of phrase, but they’re definitely there. But there’s not a monster single to catch your ear. You could call it an antidote to random playlists, or whatever Pandora’s coughing up. Beyond that, it can be easy to dismiss late-career work by musicians, but it would be a mistake in Nick Cave’s case. He’s been on a tear lately, including the Grinderman albums, and this is just as good, even though it’s not nearly as noisy or wild as those albums. Every time I’m done listening to “Push the Sky Away,” I’m a little wound up, a little disquieted, filled with a little nervous energy. Who knows what comes after that, but that’s the mark of a good piece of art.
I’ve never purchased, nor intentionally listened to one note of anything Justin Timberlake has sung (well, “Dick in a Box” has to get a free pass, right?), prior to this album. And I was totally prepared to live the rest of my life contentedly ignoring Timberlake the musician. And then, like a loose thread on a sweater, one detail changed my life. Upon half-listening to “Suit and Tie,” one sonic detail popped out. Was that a sonar blip used as percussion?
You clever motherfucker.
And that was it. I was hooked on this album. It’s lush, it’s stretched out, it’s three steps past pop music; listening to this album is submitting to luxury. It’s audio Calgon for my ears. I have no idea how Justin Timberlake arrived at this point in his career, I’m just glad that he did. Oh, how I wanted to hate this album, but that sonar blip changed everything.
“AM” is an album, like Nick Cave’s, that has a consistent mood and tone to it. It also has a couple of songs that are giant radio-worthy hits, so it’s like the best possible version of an album this year (except it’s #2, for me). Also, this is an album that sounds like sex. Sex that’s about to happen, sex that just happened, sex that’s being pleasantly reflected upon. It sounds so much like sex that it actually smells like sex. That’s pretty much rock and roll in a nutshell.
When I first started thinking about my top ten list this year, I didn’t really think there was a crystal-clear winner. The more I thought about it, there was a pretty easy top five, and among that, the top two album rested a bit above the others. Of all of them, this is probably the only album that ought to come with a warning sticker, letting you know not to play this album in public unless you’re okay with getting laid, and not by some raver dude or chick. This is a filthy rocker album, all denim barely constraining throbbing appendages and pleasing curves. It’s a forty-two minute leer. “AM” isn’t vulgar, exactly, unless you count that guitar line from “Do I Wanna Know?”, which somehow hits that part of your brain that knows. I feel like if someone made “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” today, Damone would tell you to play this on your iPod, instead of side two of Zeppelin’s “IV.”
So, you know, take caution when playing this album. “AM” is how babies get made.
This year, I had a harder time picking a run-away winner for my favorite album of the year. I actually had to sit down and think it through, go over the list, and take it from there. There just wasn’t anything that I latched onto in the same way that I have in previous years (plus, there was a lot of bleedover from last year’s albums for me - I still had Aesop Rock’s album from last year in heavy rotation until summer). The calendar felt like an arbitrary division, in terms of what I’ve been listening to this year. But there must be a winner!
Maybe I’m out of touch, but I have no idea where this album is supposed to fit in. I don’t think there was any radio play to speak of, I don’t know who pushed this on TV, all I know is that it came out on the heels of a pair of fantastic albums produced by El-P last year - Killer Mike’s “R.A.P. Music” and El-P’s own “Cancer 4 Cure.” So maybe Killer Mike’s and El-P’s careers live on the internet, where you can grab this album for free (and it’s not a disjointed mixtape, it’s a cohesive full-on album). On the internet, where you’re probably see a lot of love for this album on year-end lists much more credible than mine.
How is this the album of the year? Here’s the deal; “Run the Jewels” is both an experiment, and exactly what these two men have been doing for years. The beats are fucking perfection, but don’t sound like anything else you’re listening to right now. This thing will rattle your speakers, but there’s space and atmosphere in them, and there’s even a couple of moments that hit where the music will disjoint your existence if you play this at sufficient volume, and you’ll momentarily be unmoored from the Earth (those come on “36” Chain” and “Get It,” to cite my references). Lyrically, both men are doing pretty much exactly what they will do, but the combination of them brings something new out of both. Neither are slacking, they’re both in peak form, and I can’t even tell you who busts better lines here; there’s a long list to choose from.
So the result is something that’s a bit of a juggernaut, and not by design. Kanye needed his album to be talked about and worked backwards from that, Jay-Z settled for getting paid with his album, Eminem pulled new tricks out of an old approach, but Killer Mike and El-P made something, gave it away for free, and the universe responded. I didn’t go to a ton of concerts this year, but I made sure to buy a ticket to see Killer Mike and El-P; it seemed like the least I could do in return. El-P made a point of pointing out that their tour was made entirely possible by fans spreading the word and buying tickets; there was no label tour support, there was no one advertising on their behalf. No publicity stunts, just a couple of vets doing their thing better than they ever have, and they packed out that club in Portland, which isn’t even a big rap city. They packed out clubs all over the place. People downloaded the album and spread the word. That’s something special, and I’m happy to try and spread the word a little further.
Thanks for indulging me. Catch you next year, around this time, for another batch of whatever I've been listening to.